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Holy Redeemer, San Francisco, California, USA
Most Holy Redeemer,
San Francisco, California, USA.
Roman Catholic, Archdiocese
of San Francisco.
A simple, rectangular, cream-colored building, dating from 1900,
with tasteful Victorian detailing. The steeple houses a bell
that rings at five minutes before mass. The inside of the church
is also cream-colored, with stained glass windows framed by
decorative arched moldings. The church's main door is to the
side of the sanctuary, which is arranged in the round. A modern
and modest marble baptismal font is in front of the main door.
The choir loft is a mezzanine level at the back of the church,
above the room where parents take their crying babies to decompress.
The altar sits on a round, raised platform in the center of
the sanctuary. The lectern and the priest's chair are at the
front, with the tabernacle in the center on the wall behind
the lectern. The cantor sits on the far side of the center aisle,
opposite the main door. The light interior and the sunlight
streaming in through the windows give a sense of openness.
This is a very welcoming church located in the heart of the
famed gay district of San Francisco, the Castro. According to
the church's website: "MHR is an inclusive Catholic community
– embracing all people of good faith – Catholics
as well as those people interested in learning about the Catholic
experience – regardless of their background, gender, gender
identity, race, social status or sexual orientation." A contingent
from MHR regularly participates in San Francisco's annual Gay
Pride Parade. MHR hosts a support group for people living with
HIV and AIDS. For many years, MHR also hosted a bingo night
with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a non-profit organization
(known for its members dressing as drag-queen nuns) that raises
grant money for other non-profit organizations that promote
wellness, identity, tolerance, and diversity within needy communities.
Of course, a homosexual-friendly Catholic church is never without
controversy; there are tons of conservative Catholic websites
out there that slam and condemn this inclusivity as heresy.
The church is located on a busy street corner in the Castro
district of San Francisco. The Castro would certainly be interesting
or unusual to visitors who have never been to a neighborhood
full of gay bars and same-sex couples walking hand-in-hand down
The Revd Donal Godfrey, S.J., executive director of university
ministry at the University of San Francisco, who is a fixture
at MHR and one of the most prominent homosexual activist Catholic
priests in the world today. Father Godfrey was assisted by the
parish music director, Charles Fermeglia, who led the choir.
The date & time:
March 7, 2010, 10.00am.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
The place was chock full, a generous estimate of 200 people.
The only empty seats were those between the lectern and the
tabernacle, which only count for about ten per cent of the seats,
and would be an awkward vantage point for mass.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes! As I walked in, a nice elderly man at the welcome table
at the door wished me a good morning, asked me for my name,
wrote it on a name tag, and gave it to me. Then someone else
gave me the bulletin and song sheets for the day.
Was your pew comfortable?
Mostly, yes. Any discomfort came from the fact that the pew was so crowded with people. There were no pads on the benches, but the kneelers were nicely padded.
How would you describe
the pre-service atmosphere?
It was chatty and social. The church was abuzz with full-voiced
conversations that ranged from "Is this seat taken?" to "How
was your week?" Prior to the opening hymn, the choir director
gave us a quick lesson in Slavonic chant in preparation for
the response to the prayers of the faithful, much later in the
What were the exact opening
words of the service?
"Let's stand. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and
of the Holy Spirit." Prior to these opening words, the congregation
were seated during the opening hymn.
What books did the congregation use during the
None. All the service music was on the song sheets handed out at the door.
What musical instruments were played?
Piano and organ.
Did anything distract you?
I didn't notice this until after mass, but once I saw it, I
couldn't look away. One of the stained glass windows depicts
the Holy Family. Joseph is shown to be hard at work at his carpenter's
bench while the boy Jesus, about age five, plays nearby and
Mary stands regarding her family with a mother's approval. What
caught my attention was the carpenter's tool that Jesus was
playing with. It looked exactly like a child-sized cross! I
found this a bit disturbing.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or
The style was a sort of relaxed traditional Catholic. The music,
for example, ranged from Latin and Slavonic chants to neo-Catholic
standards by Marty Haugen and David Haas. The relaxed vibe was
apparent during the dramatized reading of the gospel (John 4:5-42,
the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well). A male
lector read the narrator part, a female lector read the part
of the Samaritan woman, and Father Godfrey read the part of
Jesus. When they got to the verse when Jesus calls out the Samaritan
woman on her having had several husbands before and now living
with a man who is not her husband, the congregation laughed.
The next line, "Truly, you must be a prophet," also got laughs.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 Father Godfrey kept it short and sweet.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon
He focused on the nature of the dialogue between Jesus and the
Samaritan woman. Initially, they're cautious, checking each
other out, and slowly chipping away at the social norms of their
interaction. This could be compared to flirtation. Once they
reveal the truth about themselves, the woman is so happy that
she wants to tell the whole town about meeting the Messiah.
This is like falling in love – you want to shout it from the
mountaintops! The Samaritan woman's conversion, her change of
heart, is to fall in love with God. Now, during Lent, we should
open our hearts to God, thinking of Lent as a courtship period.
Like the Samaritan woman at the well, we should fall in love
and stay in love with God, which is what the first part of the
great commandment (to love God with all one's heart, soul, and
mind) is all about anyway.
Which part of the service
was like being in heaven?
The music. The male cantor sang the responsorial psalm very
expressively without going overboard. The congregation actually
sang wholeheartedly, too. Charles Fermeglia does a great job
with this volunteer church choir. And believe me, I have been
known to throw down a missalette when the choir doesn't measure
up. The choir was well-balanced and sang with a beautiful tone
and clear diction. Although there were some tuning issues in
the Kyrie, they were warmed up and in tune when the Latin and
Slavonic chants rolled around for the communion anthem and the
And which part was like
being in... er... the other place?
There was no announcement about crowd flow during communion,
which was really embarrassing to a visiting newbie like myself.
Two people at the opposite end of my pew went in one direction,
but the next two people didn't move. Thus, I was blocked from
where it seemed I was supposed to go. So I exited my end and
walked around, eliciting dirty looks from the people in the
pew behind me. Only after returning to my seat did I notice
that others similarly positioned were going up to a different
location where a eucharistic minister was standing. I don't
think that dirty looks are exactly the sentiment one should
approach the chalice with, but one sympathetic lady behind me
did volunteer, "Sorry, it's not obvious for new people."
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I hung around baffled at the image of little Jesus playing with
what could have been a toy cross, and I looked at the rest of
the stained glass windows as the congregation cleared out. Finally,
a nice elderly man came up to me and invited me to post-mass
coffee in the church hall downstairs.
How would you describe the after-service
It was diluted, black, run-of-the-mill American coffee, served
hot in paper cups. Another table had various dairy and sugar
options. Baked goods on another table disappeared quickly.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 I would love it. I got a really good vibe from the congregation. The priest gave one of the best homilies I’ve ever heard in a Catholic church. The choir sang beautifully.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
Yes, very much so. It even made me glad to be specifically a Catholic.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Father Godfrey’s homily.
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